Breaking News: Illegal Downloaders to be “cut off” from the Internet as Mandelson gets tough on Piracy

Copying and sharing music over the web with other internet users without permission from either a Record Label or the Artist – has been a hot topic in the Press for some time, with research claiming that there could well be over 7 million illegal filesharers in the UK.

Against a backdrop of falling CD and DVD sales, the Government has now been forced to acknowledge the scale of the problem, which many claim is now beginning to seriously affect the UK’s ability to launch new artists as well as putting a serious dent in the fortunes of established artists, who are increasingly seeing their new releases previewed on the Web before release.

For some time, the Government has been looking for a solution to the problem after increasingly loud demands from the Music Industry to do something about it. The most obvious target has been Internet Service Providers, who the Industry claims should do more to curtail the sharing of music files between their users. Virgin and several other UK Internet Businesses such as Talk Talk have already come out on the side of the artists (perhaps understandably in Virgin’s case given Richard Branson’s history in the Music world), promising either to block “peer to peer” or “P2P” software or to send out letters to their users to force them to stop.

The Government’s recent “Digital Britain” Report places a huge amount of importance upon dealing with the problem, but still fell short of expectations from Rights Owners. Now, however, Peter Mandelson has suggested in a statement today that he plans to take a much tougher stance by disconnecting File-Sharers from the Internet altogether, a move which the Entertainment Industry has been screaming for over the past few years but which the Government has always stopped short of.

Lord Mandelson’s apparent new approach fits in very well with the Government’s aim to protect the UK’s “knowledge economy” and ensure the survival and prosperity of the music industry. However, not all Artists agree with him, notably Thom Yorke of Radiohead, who has suggested that listeners download illegally due to an absence of “good music” on mainstream radio and Chris Martin of Coldplay, who has said in the past that the traditional arrangement of being signed to a major label is “like living in your grandparents’ house……[the standard major label approach] is obviously an antiquated model because of the internet.” Lily Allen, however, believes firmly that the public should have to pay for their music and that “there’s no money going to bands any more.”

We’ve seen high-profile trials in the US over the course of the past few months with a mother-of-four and a student being forced to pay a combined total of over $2 million for downloading a relatively small number of songs (although they were portrayed as “habitual offenders” who had downloaded hundreds in the past). This looks like the long-awaited start of the crackdown in the UK and it’s probably only going to be a matter of time before the first major case against a member of the public rather than a commercial downloader gets underway.

What the Government is doing is accelerating the process which began with the Digital Britain report of addressing the issue of illegal downloading and tackling it head-on. The Report suggested a number of technical measures to crack down on piracy and handed over much of the responsibility for doing so to Ofcom, who had until 2012 to report back on whether or not those measures were necessary. Now, though, the Government has said that this is simply “too long to wait given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy.”

Part of the proposed new regime will be the grant of wider powers to Lord Mandelson to introduce such technical measures himself, rather than leaving it up to Ofcom, a move which has already drawn criticism from ISPs, partly due to the fact that one of the proposals suggests that the cost of protecting copyright on the web should be split on a 50/50 basis between them and the entertainment industry. ISPs have argued very strongly that this really isn’t their problem and that they can’t be expected to police the activity of their users, but this measure would suggest that they will at least be expected to pay towards doing so in exchange for the revenues generated through providing access to the Web in the first place.

Not only that, but ISPs will now be expected to provide detailed information on the activities of their users – they probably won’t agree to do so without a fight. A major problem is the fact that ISPs will not necessarily be able to tell exactly who is downloading – there is every possibility that several members of a household use one connection to the Web and this may mean that prosecutions or civil actions may be much more complicated and therefore more costly. Virgin ran into this problem last year when they sent out letters to various users which they suspected of using peer-to-peer services only to be told that the recipients had no idea as to who was responsible.

The Statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and skills does say that disconnection is still a weapon of last resort and that a halfway house would be to slow down broadband access to repeat offenders, but what’s really significant is that this is the first time that cutting users off has been acknowledged as a real option, following the refusal to implement a “three strikes” regime earlier this year. Much of the criticism of this new approach revolves around the fact that it comes before the end of the consultation process on the findings of the Digital Britain Report and essentially overrules many of its findings.

Rumours suggest that this move has come about following a meeting between the Business Minister and David Geffen, founder of Geffen Records and Dreamworks Films, a long-standing advocate against illegal downloading and the man responsible for launching the careers of artists such as Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana and re-launching the careers of Aerosmith and John Lennon. It’s ironic that an angry approach from a consortium of major labels earlier this year didn’t have the same effect but then again, David Geffen is one of the most important and richest figures in the entertainment industry whose philanthropy is just as well known as his success. This may mean that he cuts a more sympathetic figure than other heads of major labels, who the public may feel can stand to lose money after overcharging them for CDs.

However, a tougher approach may well turn the Public against the idea that musicians are struggling (especially as the credit crunch continues to bite) and it would be far more useful to look at the way in which the older business models that depend upon the sales of CDs can be abandoned to allow the music world to really embrace the new digital arena and make more material available for legal download, which many believe is a big part of the problem. The Beatles, for example, are a major hold-out in this area.

The key approach will be to properly educate the British public on why this is such a problem and the real and significant effect which it has on the UK’s entertainment industry. The fact remains that the law is the law, regardless of whether the public likes it or not – if you download illegally, you infringe copyright and that infringement can lead to civil and criminal penalties. However, if the Government attacked the problem in the same was as they have with the Movie Industry, more and more people may well be willing to pay for their downloads if they learn to appreciate that this kind of file-sharing is having a profound effect upon the music which makes up the soundtrack to their lives.

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